Canterbury Corner

Down on the corner of a Lyttelton street, there was a butcher, a courier and a large family to meet… Or at least, one could have met them about 150 odd years ago when three early settler families in Lyttelton combined their lives and livelihoods for three generations through marriage links.

Last year, Angel Trendafilov (one of our archaeologists), was called out to a house site in Lyttelton, where a large deposit of 19th century domestic refuse was found during the excavation for new foundation piles. This rubbish pit was found beneath a layer of introduced soil that contained many artefacts. Several matching artefact fragments were found in the introduced layer and the rubbish pit, telling us that that the soil from the upper layer had probably once been a part of the rubbish pit. At some point, the top of the pit must have been disturbed and some of its contents redeposited during ground levelling works at the site.

A photo of the house site showing the pile holes. Image: A. Trendafilov.

Angel noticed that this introduced upper soil layer was found above a drainpipe that had been manufactured by the Christchurch Brick Company (CBC). This company started as a merger between Wigram Brothers and T. N. Horsley and Co. in 1903 and the lack of disturbance observed in the relevelling layer suggest that the pipes had been laid before the site was relevelled. This suggests that the relevelling is likely to have occurred sometime after 1903, while the large rubbish pit beneath this layer must have been deposited sometime prior to this.

Drainpipe pipe with maker’s mark. Image: A. Trendafilov.

The artefacts found in this rubbish pit and ground relevelling fill layer were typical 19th century domestic types. That is to say, they were ceramic tea wares, table wares and beverage and food containers, household artefacts like chamber pots, jugs, candle holders, pharmaceutical items, and personal items like clay pipes and leather shoes. Food remains were also present in the forms of shells and bones, and from these remains it’s apparent that the people who threw them out were fans of oysters, cockles, and mutton. Only a small amount of the mutton bones had evidence of butchery, so it’s possible that they represented several sheep that were not butchered for meat. Alternatively, it’s probably more likely that the bones were used to make soups, stocks or stews.

Some of the cool clay pipes found at the site. Row A: clay pipe with “T D” and “28” mark B: Davidson, T., and Co. clay pipe (manufactured 1861 and 1910). C: clay pipe with rope decoration, and clay pipe with wheat decoration. Image: C. Dickson.

The manufacturing techniques used on these artefacts and the maker’s marks that were present suggested that this rubbish pit could not have been deposited before the 1870s. We know from researching the history of the site that people had lived on this residential section from at least 1864, but the story of the families who lived in the area proved to be a knotty tale. So allow me to unravel it for you…

If we trace back the history of land subdivisions and ownership, we can see that a large section of this town block was first purchased by David Patton Dimond in 1855. Dimond had also owned the adjoining town section (fronting Winchester Street), since 1851 and would eventually raise a family and run a business from here (LINZ, 1850: 71-72). This family consisted of David and his wife Elwina Scott, whom he married in 1853, and the four children that they had during the 1850s (Rootsweb 2006). David worked as carter/carrier, and during the 1860s he ran a courier business in partnership with his brother, Sydney Dimond, from the Winchester Street property – which they imaginatively called “Dimond Brothers” (Lyttelton Times 22/7/1854: 8). The Dimond Brothers partnership dissolved in 1866, but David continued the business himself, with it later becoming known as “Dimond and Son” when his son David George Dimond, joined the business (some more creative names here; Lyttelton Times 6/1/1866: 4; H. Wise & Co., 1883-1884: 147).

The notice of dissolution (Lyttelton Times 6/1/1866: 4).

In 1858, Dimond subdivided and sold a part of his section to George Scott (senior), and Moses Cryer (LINZ 1850: 71). This section comprised most of the northern half of the town section (where our property is now located), leaving a narrow area to the west that may have been used as an access road.

Detail from the Lyttelton Deeds Index Register showing the 1858 subdivision (in green), of the town section. Image: LINZ 1850: 543.

Moses Cryer was the earliest butcher in Lyttelton, and he was involved with the planning of the first road over the Port Hills (Press 12/9/1893: 5; New Zealand Herald 7/1/1935: 10). He didn’t keep his share of the property for long but sold his interest to George Scott (or perhaps another member or the Scott clan), in 1859 (LINZ 1850: 554). To make matters a little more interesting, George Scott’s daughter was the aforementioned Elwina Scott, making him David Dimond’s father-in-law. George’s sons, Samuel Francis Scott and George Francis Scott, also had a fraternal business in Lyttelton (this one was named Messrs G. F. and S. F. Scott), and together they ran the Mitre Hotel and the Robin Hood Inn (finally a great name), located on Norwich Quay, until 1857 (Lyttelton Times 11/3/1857: 12).

Another one bites the dust (Lyttelton Times 16/7/1857: 6).

This tangled web of small-town marriage wove further in 1855, when Samuel Francis Scott married Anne Cryer (Moses Cryer’s daughter; Lyttelton Times 28/3/1855: 3). We could tell by a newspaper birth announcement and the electoral rolls that Samuel and Anne lived at the Canterbury Street address from at least 1864, and they were likely to have stayed there until they moved their family to Southbridge in 1867 (Lyttelton Times 6/9/1864: 4; H. Wise & Co. 1878-1879: 155). This suggests that the two fathers, Moses Cryer and George Scott, may have purchased the section to build a home for their children to start a family in, right next door to Samuel’s sister Elwina. Isn’t that nice! What’s also nice is that this suggests the strong possibility that the archaeological material found on this site is associated with the Samuel Scott/Anne Cryer family’s occupation of the section between c. 1864 and 1876.

But this isn’t our only option – confidently attributing archaeological finds on densely populated town sections is rarely so simple. Following Samuel Scott’s departure to Southbridge in 1876, Scott sold the property back to (his now relative) David Dimond. David then mortgaged his large property several times to the Lyttelton Permanent Building Society, and with the funding this raised, he probably built several structures on it (LINZ 1850: 543). David also advertised a six-roomed property to let on Canterbury Street, but it is not known if any tenants moved in.

A lonely home (Star 12/10/1876: 2).

In 1900, David subdivided his property again, and by this time, there were at least three large dwellings present in the area (LINZ, 1900). However, no structures were present in the section where our artefacts were found, suggesting that the dwelling occupied by the Scott/Cryer family in the 1860s and 1870s had been demolished by 1900. Thomas Martin Lewington (ship joiner and inventor of an automatic sheep carcass counter), had leased the neighbouring back section from at least 1896 and in 1901, he purchased it (as well as the section containing our archaeological site; Evening Star 17/2/1891: 3; LINZ, 1901; H. Wise & Co., n.d. :19; Press 15/3/1940: 10).

Plan showing buildings present in the area during 1900. The vacant section fronting Canterbury Street on the plan was the location of the archaeological site. The building visible in the northwest of the plan is probably the Lewington family home. Image: LINZ, 1900.

As the adjacent Canterbury Street section was probably vacant during the later decades of the 19th century, it may have acted as a convenient place where the neighbouring Lewingtons or the Dimond families could have disposed of their household trash before a new house was built on the section. On-site domestic rubbish deposition like this was common in Canterbury during the 19th century, and archaeological evidence from other local domestic sites suggest that citizens often buried or burnt their own rubbish on-site (Wilson 2005). We’ve seen examples of refuse dumping at neighbouring vacant sections like this before on Canterbury archaeological sites, so without the presence of any artefacts that could be specifically attributed to any of the families, it’s difficult to tell who this rubbish belonged to.

Map showing all the buildings present in the area by 1910. The building that was present at the location our archaeological site (outlined in red), is likely that to be the same building that was standing until its post-earthquake demolition. The presence of the extant house in 1910 indicates that the rubbish pit, pipe laying and the relevelling of the site all occurred before this date. Image: Williams 1910.

Despite the uncertainties, this site offered us a fascinating history of some of the earliest settlers of Lyttelton, and it proved to be a great example of close family ties, family enterprise, not to mention, confusingly repeated family names.

Chelsea Dickson


Wise & Co., n.d. Wise’s New Zealand Post Office Directories.

LINZ, 1850. Canterbury Land District Deeds Index – Lyttelton B, Canterbury. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch office.

LINZ, 1900. DP 1623, Canterbury. Landonline.

Williams, J.R., 1910. Plan of Lyttelton Sewerage.

Wilson, J. et. al. 2005. Contextual Historical Overview for Christchurch City. Christchurch City Council. Available  at:  [Accessed May 2016).


Long-drops from long ago

It’s something so mundane that it forms a part of our everyday lives and it’s as inescapable as death and taxes. Even though we spoke of it last week on the blog, it’s something people don’t often speak about and it’s something we all have a very private and personal relationship with. In fact, this topic harbors so much taboo that it’s widely considered impolite to discuss one’s poo. I’m sorry!

Our evasion of our natural bodily processes was probably not always the norm. The Romans gifted us the first predecessor of a plumbed “toilet” – which consisted of a flowing water channel over which a series of hollow seats were sometimes built. But the Romans didn’t break down any of the aforementioned taboo walls… (in a sense, because they never built any walls in their latrines anyway). Instead, their public toilets were a communal affair, where a one handled their daily task sitting alongside his neighbor. They shared not only their sounds, smells and over all experience, but they even shared the cleaning sponge stick – the ancestor of our disposable toilet paper (side note – this is where the phrase ‘don’t get the wrong end of the stick’ derives).

However, when considering the attitudes of our conservative Victorian ancestors, it’s not hard to imagine the air of confidentiality that surrounded their ‘bathroom’ visits. The emergence of this modern western concept of privacy and secrecy during these practices is probably largely due to the evolution of the latrine structure itself, which eventually developed from a hole dug in a field to an enclosed, single occupancy arrangement. In this secluded situation, outsiders don’t specifically know what is taking place during these intimate moments and society sort of lost the concept of what was considered normal bodily functions. As result, secrecy, euphemisms and comical deflection ensued. [Insert toilet humour here].

We’re going to dive into these messy issues today as we discuss this less than glamorous topic of the Victorian privies/long-drops we have found. Before the days of flushing toilets and hand sanitiser, the citizens of 19th century Christchurch usually took care of their “business” in outhouses in their backyards. These tended to be situated at the rear of their property, within convenient stumbling distance of the house for ease of night-time visits (Butcher & Smith 2010).

An archaeologist sitting in a cesspit. Image: H. Williams.

We’ve found quite a few of these features on Christchurch archaeological sites, and it appears that it wasn’t just private human waste that was being deposited down the loo. The plethora of rubbish we find in them is very similar to the refuse found in domestic rubbish pits, an indication that privies were also used as a place to discard normal household items like table ware dishes and broken glass bottles. What is not always immediately apparent is why privies were used as a garbage disposal shoot in every case. Our data seems to show that the Christchurch Victorians often filled in their long-drops with household refuse when they ceased to be used. It also seems very logical that in the possible haste that one can sometimes be under to relieve oneself, or while fumbling about with way too many layers of intricate Victorian clothing, something might accidentally drop from a pocket down the hatch. If this had happened to me, I personally wouldn’t have gone reaching into a long-drop to fish out any lost possessions. But as well as that, it’s possible that this dark (and conveniently open), hole in the ground offered an opportune receptacle to throw out the odd plate fragment that someone may have accidentally broken… perhaps wanting to hide the evidence from a mother or wife?

… But the evidence doesn’t always stay hidden. Us nosy archaeologists come snooping 150-odd years later and we don’t tend to mind getting our hands a little dirty (once this ‘matter’ has decomposed). We will find the things that have been dropped in deliberately, accidentally or sneakily, although we may not always be able to tell the difference.

A typical privy showing how these features look when first found, half sectioned and then fully removed. This one had timber at the base. Image: J. Garland.

The image above is a typical example of an excavated long-drop. In this case, no structural features such as building foundations or post holes were found surrounding the privy, but it was almost certainly originally covered. The feature itself was roughly square in shape, and relatively deep when compared with the (much shallower) features that were found elsewhere on the section. This suggested that it was dug for a purpose (at this point we need not mention this purpose) other than rubbish disposal, a great example of a dis-used latrine that was filled in with refuse at a later date.

A collection of some of the unfortunate ceramic forms that had been dropped off down this loo. Image: J. Garland.

An archaeological deposit of toilet rubbish… or deposit of rubbish toilets? The image on the left shows an in situ deposit that was almost exclusively broken up sanitary ware (wash basins and toilet pans etc). The picture on the right is one of these fragments up close, which was made by Doulton and Co. ca. 1882-1891. This feature was found on the site inhabited by the Taylor and Oakley firm, who exhibited “toilet seats and other articles, painted and artistically decorated” at the Christchurch exhibition in 1884 (Star 12/1/1884: 4). It is likely that this assemblage represents broken or wasted stock from the commercial enterprise which had been deliberately smashed for easier disposal. Image: H.Williams and J. Garland.

Even if any of these forms represented broken items that had been hidden down the toilet, our finds aren’t getting anyone in trouble 150 years later. Where these clumsy individuals may have gotten caught out is when these privies were cleaned and emptied. Previous research on domestic archaeological sites the in U.S.A indicates that the typical life cycle of a privy included episodes of deposition and cleaning. The regularity of cleaning would depend on the rapidity of filling and this would naturally be related to the size of the privy, the number of users, and the kinds of deposition (Lee Decker 1994: 356). This research also suggests that some privies may have been filled in as short a time as six months, while other studies have suggested that the filling process extended over a period of several decades (Lee Decker 1994: 356). Such clean outs of privies may have been performed by a member of the household rather than a licensed ‘night soil man’ (Lee Decker 1994:356). Hamish Williams has discussed the night soil man on the blog before, – he told us that “the cargo of this fantastic public servant was collected from one’s property in the wee hours, carted away then dumped on the fringes of town. From 1886 in Christchurch, a specially converted tram was employed between the hours of midnight and 5am to take tanks of ‘night soil’ waste out to the Council’s newly established ‘rubbish reserve’ in Linwood (Alexander 1985:11). This service cost a household seven pennies a week (Clark 1878:14).”

Recently, I had the privilege (?) of analysing an artefact assemblage that came from a very special (probable) privy in Central Christchurch. Shown below, this latrine was located on the property of Cyrus Davie and his family. Davie was an early European settler to Christchurch and was employed as the town surveyor in Christchurch’s infancy. The first family home on his section was constructed by 1855, and the long-drop or cesspit feature in question was conveniently located near the site of this dwelling. This likely privy feature was identified as such because privies/long-drops are generally narrow and deep, while cesspits are generally wider then they are deep (this one had properties of the latter but due to the extent of the earthworks planed on this site, it was not able to be excavated completely).

The stratigraphic profiles of the privy feature. Image: S. Dooley.

What’s extra exciting about this site is that we found two additional, irregularly shaped deposits of dark soil, containing artefacts that were ‘scat-tered’ everywhere. These deposits were located elsewhere on the section and were identified as probable deposits of night soil (human waste). The archaeological contexts and artefact similarities identified between these deposits and the privy feature suggested that they were temporally related and it’s likely that the two night soil deposits represented clean out waste from the long drop. We also found a Thomas Hide and Edward De Carle token in one of these deposits. This may represent one of those items that were accidentally dropped down the throne, never to be seen again. After all, who actually wants to throw their money down the toilet?

One of the probable night soil deposits. The cross-section of the feature is shown on the left, and the feature after excavation is shown on the right. Image: P. Mitchell.

Wasted money… This Thomas Hide and Edward De Carle token was found in one of the night soil deposit features. It would have been used in lieu of normal currency (across the ditch), for this Melbourne Based grocery, wine and spirit merchants between 1857 and 1861 (Museums Victoria 2017). Image: J. Garland.

As mentioned, privy features are a type of deposit that can accumulate over a long period of time, but the artefacts from this example appeared to have been recovered from the same stratigraphic layer. The two night soil deposits were found in a relatively secure context – underneath another building on the property that were known to have been constructed by 1862. If these features do relate to a privy and the associated clean out deposits, the privy would have been conveniently located to the east of the main Davie house, while the privy clean out deposits would be located much further away from main house. This would have been preferable for smell and hygiene reasons.

So, while it seems most likely that this wealth of human excrement once belonged to the Davie family, they were not the only 19th century inhabitants of this section. For one short year, in 1881, the Davies leased their home to none other than Sir Julius Von Haast (the German explorer, geologist and the founder of Canterbury Museum). So maybe, just maybe, the archaeologists who excavated these features were privy to the private fecal matter of one of New Zealand’s most famous European settlers.

Chelsea Dickson




Alexander, M., 1985. Rails in the roads – the steam and horse tram era in Christchurch. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Transport Board / Tramway Historical Society.

Butcher, M. & Smith, I., 2010. Talking trash: classifying rubbish-bearing deposits from colonial New Zealand sites. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 1(1): 43-61.

Clark, W. 1878. Drainage Scheme for Christchurch and the Suburbs [Online] Available at:

Garland, J., Webb, K. J., Haley, J. and Bone, K., 2015. The Music Centre, 150, 154 and 156 Armagh Street: Report on Archaeological Investigations, Vol. 1. Unpublished report for The Music Centre.

LeeDecker, C. H. 1994. Discard Behaviour on Domestic Historic Sites: Evaluation of Contexts for the Interpretation of Household Consumption Patterns. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol. 1(4): 345-375.

Museums Victoria Collections 2017. [online] Available at: [Accessed 09 October 2017].

Williams, H., Garland, J. and Geary Nichol, R., 2016. Christchurch Justice & Emergency Services Precinct archaeological report. Unpublished report for the Ministry of Justice.

Wilson, J., 1989. Christchurch: swamp to city. A Short History of the Christchurch Drainage Board. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Drainage Board.

All things great and small

Here at Underground Overground Archaeology we try not to sweat the small stuff – particularly because the small stuff we find is often super cool and makes us say “aww, that’s cute!”, similar to the way many people react when they see baby humans next to regular sized, adult humans.

For example: one product, in two very different sized pots (it’s John Gosnell’s Cherry Toothpaste – first produced in the 1850s). The image on the left shows the size we commonly find in 19th century Christchurch assemblages. The one on the right was a unique find for us. It’s super cute, but it wouldn’t have held a whole lot of toothpaste. Images: left and right: C. Dickson.

Big things coming in small packages are quite literally the bread and butter of an archaeologist. We have often mentioned the theory of how the smallest or most ordinary of objects can illustrate the histories of people and places in ways we might not expect. This was an idea first brought forward in the 1970s, by – American archaeologist, James Deetz, in his bookIn Small Things Forgotten.’

While many of the artefacts we find are small fragments, or what Deetz would consider small things anyway, there are also those that we would classify as “mini sized.” These tiny versions of some of our commonly found Victorian artefacts don’t appear to be particularly rare among online collectors, but information regarding their functions is rather scarce. When faced with identical artefacts with such extreme size differences, our best guess is that these may represent samples of a product – much like a tester you would find in a pharmacy today. Although humorous to imagine, it seems a little farfetched that a mini-sized champagne bottle would have been found in a 19th century boarding house minibar, or that a mini toothpaste pot was fashioned as travel size to fit in your carry-on baggage. Moreover, the subject of vessel reuse is one that constantly plagues our ability to accurately attribute vessel function to our finds, and intrinsically assigning the normal contents of a ‘regular’ sized vessel to a ‘sample size’ vessel, seems even more problematic than usual. For instance, the volume of the mini ring-seal bottle pictured below suggests that it probably wouldn’t hold more than one serving… So champagne for one anyone?

Less is more? Here are some smaller versions of some larger alcohol bottles. On the right is a tiny version of one of the most common 19th century artefact finds – the black beer bottle. The left image shows the size comparison of a champagne shaped ring seal bottle – these were made in several different volumes, but the mini size is rare. Maybe sometimes people just weren’t overly thirsty. Images: J. Garland and C. Dickson.

Maria and I with two very different sized flagons, wearing two very similar tops…. Coincidence? …Actually yes. These vessels may have once held a number of beverage types, including cider, beer, wine or water. The large vessel was made by Stephen Green’s Imperial Pottery in Lambeth, between 1820 and 1858. The small vessel was manufactured by George Skey and Co., Tamworth – a known maker of ginger beer between 1860 and 1936 (Lorenzor 2011). Images: J. Garland and C. Dickson.

It is a small world after all, and maybe sometimes people only needed small amounts of certain products? The tiny bottles that we occasionally find may have been deliberately sized as such because their original contents were perishable and consumers didn’t use much at once. Cosmetics come to mind in this case.

Our in-house hand model, Jessie, is sporting two very small vessels which come in several different colours to suit every skin tone. We aren’t entirely sure what these tiny bottles originally contained, but the one on the left has black residue on the interior.

If we take a break from beverages and bottles, we can consider the small artefacts that are known as ‘miniatures’ (the type of bric-a-brac one finds on a mantelpiece). These items have been relatively overlooked by archaeological interpreters and theorists in the past, primarily because their origins and meanings are less understood than those of items that were used as part of daily domestic or commercial tasks. Indeed, the way we even sometimes refer to miniatures carries connotations of reduced importance, calling them “trinkets,” “trifles,” or “dainty” (Mullins 2001: 159). Perhaps I’m also guilty of this, having called the toothpaste pot “cute” earlier. It’s been thought that lesser archaeological value has been historically attributed to these ‘knickknacks’ because they are recovered from archaeological sites in comparatively smaller numbers, and have less meaning attached to them than other artefacts (Mills 2015: 250). Even modern-day enthusiasts and collectors of miniatures are often more concerned with the rarity, and thus greater monetary value of their antiques, so the original functions and meanings of these items are further ignored (Mills 2015: 250).

As a result of this gap in the discourse, we don’t know all that much about miniatures. While it’s true that they’re not found as commonly on historical archaeological sites as items that are ‘’utilised’ for everyday functions, we do still come across them. So it begs some questions – how did people acquire them? How did the manufacturers of miniatures decide what to make? And how were they promoted to potential consumers? (Mills 2015: 256). Nineteenth century advertisements for miniatures are scarce, despite the phenomenal increase in marketing that occurred during this century (Mills 2015: 256). But we can guess that many of these ‘luxury?’ items must have been inexpensive and versions of them were probably readily available to most people because miniature forms are found on archaeological sites widely spanning many different socio-economic groups.

Beverage break! Some of the Underground Overground Archaeology staff (including a very fresh-faced Luke), enjoying a cup of afternoon tea. Personally, I require more tea than this during my breaks, but that’s just me…

Despite the small issue of the gap in our knowledge, the idea has been put forward by scholars that “A reduction in dimensions does not produce a corresponding reduction in significance” (Stewart 1993: 43). As miniatures could often be considered more ‘luxury’ items (in this case, luxury refers to something that is not used as a part of everyday living), they offer us a rare opportunity to speculate about values and thoughts, rather than about everyday activities. The latter of these can be seen through household artefacts, and the theory behind their use can get a little mundane when they only show us home maintenance, cooking, cleaning, eating, grooming, child care etc. It’s been theorised that “while many artefacts can reflect the thinking of their owners indirectly (fashionable tea wares, for example), miniatures can depict attitudes and meanings since they were not acquired to be used, but for what they symbolized” (Mills 2015: 254).

But theorising/speculating about the meaning of miniatures is not without risk. Attributing meaning to any object is problematic because an individual’s ownership of an artefact can’t always be assumed, and connecting ‘backstories’ to possessions can reflect the biases modern interpreters (Mills 2015: 255). One of the main ways this happens with miniatures is by assuming that “small” equals “toy” and “toy” equals “child”. This is something we often do when finding miniature items like ceramic dolls, marbles and miniature tea sets on Christchurch archaeological sites – and as with other places in the world, documented evidence of children’s presence on these sites is not always found to back up this presumed ownership. Of course, children are not always recorded in historical sources, but this is beside the point. Meanings behind the creation, initial appropriation and continued possession of artefacts can be acquired, changed, and abandoned over time— for example, what starts as an item of childhood entertainment may be nostalgically kept by an adult, or even sometimes may be first acquired by an adult (Mills 2015: 255). This could explain the presence of things like miniature tea sets in our assemblages when we know that only a bachelor lived on-site historically. To confuse the issue further, the concept of childhood as a distinct from adulthood was not also widely recognised by all parts of Victorian society until the mid-19th century (Mills 2015: 255). Child labour was the norm among the Victorian lower classes at this time, but sentiments of youthful innocents requiring protection and education grew, and as a result, so did childhood leisure time. Prior to this, some children still had opportunities to play, but not in the ways children do today, and we can’t assume that all children played with ‘toys’ in the way that we think of them now.

A tiny dog and some tiny bricks. The bricks represent an artefact that we would typically classify as a ‘toy’ or ‘children’s artefact’. The bricks are called ‘kiddibricks’ – first made in Christchurch 1893, by Percival Adams (who was the son of a brick-maker). He made a miniature model of a brick-making press (which made miniature bricks; Truttman 2011). The name “kiddibricks” probably says it all, but these are essentially a precursor to Lego, and I know a few adults who love a good Lego set.

Regardless of their original contents or meanings, mini-sized artefacts and “miniatures” are always a welcome find on our historic sites. We may not be able to come to many conclusions about their place in the historic world, but it pays to remember, it’s the little things that count.

Chelsea Dickson


Lorenzor, M., 2011. Tamworth Time Hikes: George Skey´s Wilnecote Works [online] available at:

Mills, R. 2015. ‘Material Culture in Miniature: The Historical Archaeology of Nineteenth-Century Miniature Objects.’ The Importance of British Material Culture to Historical Archaeologies of the Nineteenth Century. Alisdair Brooks (eds): 243-273. University of Nebraska Press.

Mullins, P., 2001 Racializing the Parlour: Race and Victorian Bric- a- Brac Consumption. In Race and the Archaeology of Identity. Charles E. Orser, editor, pp. 158– 176. University of Utah Press, Provo

Stewart, S., 1993. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Duke University Press, Durham nc.

Truttman, L., 2011. ‘A Little Brick Story.’ Timespanner [Online] Available at:

Finding out more, under the floor

Recently, Peter Mitchell, one of our building archaeology specialists, recorded a 19th century residential dwelling just on the edge of Christchurch’s Central City. This dwelling was similar in form and function to others we have seen in Canterbury – it was a square plan salt box cottage, made of weatherboard timber with a corrugated iron roof. During demolition, it became apparent there were at least four phases of construction in this building, with the first phase represented by a cottage with a two-room gable section at the front and a smaller single room gable kitchen/scullery at the rear (Mitchell 2017).

The salt box cottage, as it stood before prior to demolition. Image P. Mitchell.

Scale drawing of the south elevation of the salt box cottage with the hypothesised Phase 1 building marked by the dotted lines. Image: P. Mitchell.

After the house was recorded, it was demolished due to earthquake damage, and when 19th century houses are taken apart like this, we have a great opportunity to see what lies beneath them. Fortunately, for those of us who are into a bit of material culture, this often means artefacts!

With these types of ‘underfloor’ deposits, individual artefacts can often be spatially associated with the individual rooms under which they are found. This can be pretty interesting when the functions of the artefacts are related to the functions of these rooms – for instance, when one finds food remains and condiment bottles under the kitchen. We’ve posted about nice examples of this before on the blog, but things don’t always work out quite so conveniently. Original contexts aren’t always so clear when building alterations are made, when walls are moved and when room functions change. And, unfortunately, sometimes artefacts that are scattered on the ground surface also get accidentally moved around during demolition (by those pesky mechanical excavators, or by falling building materials). As a result, the artefacts can lose their original provenance information. Alas, this is what happened to the artefacts that were found under our salt box cottage. But all is not lost – we still recovered some cool artefacts from under this house which can add to our knowledge of Victorian domestic goods and tell us about the lives of the people who resided in this house back in the 19th century.

Artefacts found under the house following demolition.

As a general trend, underfloor contexts frequently provide a superior preservation situation to scatters of artefacts that are found under the ground. In many cases, the conditions underneath structures are relatively dry, and rubbish that is thrown, placed or lost under a building is largely safe from the taphonomic processes that affect artefacts in the ground. These processes vary depending on the context of those sub-surface deposits, but many of the factors – such as moisture, disturbance from foot or vehicle traffic, the chemical and biological composition of the soil – that weather and adversely affect artefacts underground are not so applicable to underfloor contexts. As a result, fragile artefacts like paper, textiles or leather, are often found underneath the floors of houses in relatively good condition (that is, if they haven’t been subject to flooding, mould and gnawing by cats and rodents). Artefact life is hard, no?

But despite these dangers, the cottage assemblage provided us with several interesting household vessels – by which I mean non-food related artefacts associated with the day to day activities of the cottage household. For example, we recovered the ‘chimney’ section of a glass oil or kerosene lamp (visible below). This vessel had a (very well preserved) Brendel and Loewig maker’s mark stamped in on the outside, which is exciting because this is a unique find in our Christchurch assemblages to date. The company initials were featured within a round starburst motif with the words “BALDUR BRENNER 20””added to the mark (Brenner translates to burner in German, and this section of the mark probably describes that size and lamp model). Further research on this company indicated that Brendel and Loewig were founded in 1861 in Berlin, by Otto Brendel and Carl Loewig, as a metal and paint shop. In addition to the bird cages (very niche?), washing bowls and kitchen utensils they made, they also made chandeliers, stall lanterns and oil lamps (which amounts to a very eclectic mix of specialties). They had several ownership changes but largely kept the company in the family until Otto’s son Erich became the sole owner from 1906 onwards. This company was so successful that it remains in operation under different ownership in Germany today (Designretter 2017).

Brendel and Loewig lamp.

An example of a similar German 20” “brenner” from Stoll, 1889 – a rival German lighting company. Image. This is what our lamp would have looked like when it was whole.

Not to be left out, we also recovered a bottle of Spooner’s Royal Navy Boot Dressing – this product was essentially boot polish, the remnants of which can still be seen in the bottom of the vessel if you look closely. Spooner’s were a Melbourne based company that made polish and dressings for leather products such as footwear and horse saddles etc. Similar bottles to this one have been found in several other New Zealand archaeological sites, in contexts dating between the 1890s until the 1910s.

Front and reverse of Spooner’s boot dressing bottle embossed with their maker’s mark. The tell-tale Spooner’s boot can be seen on the front of this vessel.

As you can see, Spooner and Co., had some interesting and inappropriate names for their boot polish colours… “Cobra” “Satin Blacking” and “Maori Gloss” are featured in this advertisement… Something tells us this wouldn’t be an item that would be stocked in today’s local supermarkets. Marlborough Express 20/2/1903: 3

This is also the site where we found the Ezra Kelley watch oil bottle from Massachusetts that we showed you a couple of weeks ago. At first glance, it seems like the previous owner of this product likely took some pride in their possessions – polishing their boots and lubricating their pocket watches.

Can’t get enough of that Ezra Kelley pocket watch oil.

So, who was this pocket watch sporting, shiny booted person who lived our salt box cottage? Unfortunately, historical records don’t provide us with a clear indication of a specific culprit – in fact, these artefacts were actually likely to have been deposited by more than one occupant of the cottage over an unknown period of time. One of the drawbacks of underfloor deposits is that they lack the closed, ‘discrete’ context of deposits like rubbish pits, the nature of which allows us to narrow down when assemblages were discarded and whether that deposition happened in one event (or, if there are layers in a pit, in several different events that can be dated). Instead, artefacts that are found underneath structures could have been discarded separately over an unknown period, anytime between the date of initial building construction and the date that they were found. This is often seen under historical buildings that have gaps between the wooden floorboards through which small artefacts could fall. Or alternatively, as in this case, it happens in structures that have gaps between the floor and foundations, where rubbish could have been deliberately thrown under the building or dragged under by animals. The reality is that not enough research has been carried out on underfloor assemblages to be sure how these types of assemblages are deposited and accumulated. But that doesn’t mean we are left completely in the dark – for the purposes of dating the assemblages that we find in these contexts, we can make calculated guesses, taking into account the manufacturing date ranges for the individual artefacts that we find. We can also further compare these dates with the construction phases of the associated buildings, suggesting when items are most likely to have been first deposited or subsequently moved around.

Our salt box cottage section has a long history of occupation starting from the early 1860s. Even before it was built, the site was home to an earlier residence and a retail store. The occupants of these buildings may have discarded their own rubbish or possessions on the land, and any such artefacts may still remain elsewhere on this site. However, due to the location that our artefact assemblage was found (directly underneath the floorboards of the cottage), it is likely that they would have been accidentally lost, or deliberately discarded by the occupants of this building, rather than the earlier ones. So when did this happen?

The cottage was built around 1875 by William Ellis Voller and it was inhabited by several individuals after him. Many of the artefacts have long ranging manufacturing dates which span the occupation period of multiple known residents of the cottage and this makes it is difficult to determine exactly who they might be associated with. Potential suspects included Voller himself, between at least 1875 and c. 1878, followed immediately by John Goodman. Goodman sold the property in 1890, at which time the house was in its second phase of construction, which we know because it was advertised in local newspapers as having four rooms (which was one more than the original three). Samuel Thomas Longley resided in the dwelling between 1890 and 1893, after which time he sold it to a widow, Mrs Eliza Ann Friedman. Friedman remained a resident until 1903, so it is likely to have been Eliza who deposited the Spooner’s boot polish. The same can’t be said for the rest of the assemblage though, which could have been associated with any of the previous occupants of the cottage.

An 1877 Map of Christchurch, showing a building present on William Voller’s section (outlined in red). Image: Strouts, 1877.

It’s in confusing times like these that it can be helpful to find a personal artefact that can be directly associated with different individuals, genders or ages – certainly, the presence of a child’s shoe and a possible wooden spinning top toy suggests that these artefacts would likely have been discarded by one of the occupants who had a young family – but no records of children at this property have been found to date.

Possessions of a nameless child.

Another mystery, another site, another day in the life of Underground Overground Archaeology. Until next time.

 Chelsea Dickson


Designretter 2017. Lighting Manufacturer from Germany: Brendel and Loewig [English Translation Online] Available at:



The spoils of oils

We all know that fish oil is great for our skin and hair but does the use of whale oil tickle your moral compass? It was utilised for many household purposes during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries and today we will take a look at a couple of men who made a big splash in the whale oil industry.

Not too long ago, a miniature vial was found in one of our artefact assemblages from Christchurch’s Central City. This vessel had “Ezra Kelley” embossed on the base, which we traced to a 19th century watchmaker from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Ezra Kelley was a special fellow in the 19th century watchmaking and repairing scene, because he was the first maker to commercially use oil from the jaws of porpoises and blackfish (pilot whales) to lubricate watch mechanisms (Goodwin 2016). Prior to this, olive and vegetable oils were used instead. Oil extracted from the jaws of porpoises and blackfish had been used by carpenters to sharpen their tools without the risk of rust since 1816, but it wasn’t until 1829 that the sailor, Solomon Cook, sent the first batch of blackfish jaw oil to Kelley for testing (Goodwin 2016). Kelley found it superior to all other oils, as it didn’t congeal at low temperatures, nor did it rust brass, and its light and fine properties also gave it a low freezing point. This made it a suitable, year-round lubricant for delicate machinery such as clocks, watches, and sewing machines (at a lower grade, sperm whale oil was advertised as best for sewing machines, firearms, and telegraphs; Goodwin 2016). In 1884, Kelley began selling this new oil (supplied by the Cook family), for a whopping US $5-$15 per gallon, which converts to around US $111 – $333 in today’s money (Goodwin 2016). As a comparison, a barrel of modern crude oil, contains 42 gallons and sells for $90-$110 (Cherrybalmz 2017). Whale oil was so expensive at this time due to supply and demand, but also for one other key reason – it’s lubrication properties were worth it (Cherrybalmz 2017).

Ezra Kelley watch oil bottle found in the Central City. Image: C. Dickson.

Sperm Sewing Oil! Also found in Christchurch Central City, this bottle probably contained a lower grade of whale oil than what Kelley made. Image: C. Dickson.

Just like a fine wine, Kelley’s oil improved with age. The processing of his blackfish oil included a two-year aging stage after the oil had been gently heated to remove excess water. Processors then spread the oil out into thin layers and slowly froze it, causing any solids to precipitate within it, which could be later strained through a cloth. The more competently this process was carried out, and the fresher the oil was, the better the grade of lubricant could be produced – the premium Blackfish grades could operate reliably below -50°F (-45.6 degrees Celsius; Cherrybalmz 2017). So, you could be cold, but you’d always know what time it is.

Ezra Kelley oil advertisement c. 1890. Image.

It seems that Kelley’s major failing was that his oil sold too profitably. All his success didn’t go unnoticed by the rival oil seller, William Foster Nye, who originally dealt in other oil types, like burning oils, castor oil and salad oil. After witnessing Kelley’s success, Nye subsequently developed a method for processing “fish jaw oil” – capitalising on Kelley’s discoveries and managing to secure a British distributor six months after his first advertisement. Having captured the British market, Nye was able to undercut his predecessor’s prices by offering large discounts to his customers and he was so successful at this that he managed to absorb Kelley’s business by 1896 (Zabawski 2017). Within the year, the new company was responsible for nine-tenths of the global supply of fish jaw oil raw materials and it ran a monopoly of the industry that would last until the decline of whaling during the next century (Nye 2017, Zabawski 2017). However, the end of whaling didn’t spell the end for Nye -the fish jaw oil continued to be sold into the 1970s, but the threat of whale extinction and the technological advances of synthetic oils ended the company’s reliance on blackfish/porpoises and the era of synthetic fluids began (Zabawski 2017). Due to their ability to adapt, the Nye oil company remains in operation today (Nye 2017).

Nye advertisement. Date unknown. Image.

‘Watching’ an 1886 whale massacre… Image: Attic Paper.

Massachusetts, where Kelley and Nye were both based, was once a hub for whale oil production. Specifically, New Bedford Massachusetts was such a busy whaling port that it was known as “The City That Lit the World” and, “The Whaling City”, because during the 19th century, it was one of the most important whaling ports in the world, along with Nantucket, Massachusetts and New London, Connecticut (Huntington 2009). This American whaling industry had a strong focus on spermaceti (the waxy oil found in the head of sperm whales), named after an initial misconception that the substance was the coagulated semen of sperm whales… Unfortunate naming aside, this oil type was commonly used in candle manufacture and in oil lamps when distilled – its natural properties produced bright, clear flames when burnt, without excess smoke (McNamara 2017).

As most Kiwis know, New Zealand was not exempt from what we now consider to be a barbaric industry. Eighteenth and 19th century whaling ships visited the waters around the country, and this natural resource began to be exploited off our coasts before New Zealand was even settled by Europeans. The industry began to decline here by the early 1840s, as over exploited whales became scarce and New Zealand’s new government imposed duties and port charges on whaling ships (Phillips 2006). Occasionally, American whaling ships still visited in the mid-1800s, the last of which was probably the Charles W. Morgan, in 1894 (Phillips 2006). However, pilot whales to this day are notorious for stranding on our beaches, and beached whales continued to be used as a resource in the 20th century.

Cutting up the blubber of beached pilot whales. New Zealand, 1911? Arthur James Northwood (1881-1949) Image.

Men boiling down blackfish blubber, Tokerau Beach. Taaffe, James Thomas Benjamin, d 1971: Photographs of the Far North district, Northland region. Ref: 1/2-026801-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23070974. Image. Date unknown.

Clearly, 18th and 19th century society didn’t share the modern distaste for the whaling industry. As you’ve seen, Kelley and Nye’s advertisements for their whale oil often pictured the graphic scenes depicting whales being caught and processed, and given how successful these companies were, this violence can’t have been a deterrent for sales. Herman Melville also provides us with insight into how revered whale products were – calling whale oil “as rare as the milk of queens” in his classic, Moby Dick, which was written in this era (Melville 1851). Essentially, the entire industry is a parallel to crude oil in today’s market, given the similarities in costs, peoples dependence on it and its range of applications.

These applications included not only lubrication and illumination, but also the manufacture of soaps, paint, varnish, margarine, and as a treatment for textiles and rope. “Whalebone” which was commonly found in corsets, was not actually what it describes – it was not bone, but baleen from whales (a form of keratin – the same material as human fingernails), and its purpose is to filter plankton into whales mouths. Baleen is strong but flexible (which are similar properties to that of plastic), and it was not only used in other attire like shirt collars and eyeglass frames, but also for buggy whips, hair and chimney brushes and umbrellas (Cherrybalmz 2017). It was also featured as a key component of early springs, including carriage, mattress, and piano springs (Cherrybalmz 2017). To continue with the industry comparison, in 1891 a pound of ‘whalebone’ was worth up to US $7 – that’s nearly $200 per pound today! (Cherrybalmz 2017). In 1882, a single whale produced 6000 gallons of oil and 2550 pounds of baleen, for a combined worth of $11,200 – or roughly a quarter million dollars in today’s money – and this was just from one animal! (Cherrybalmz 2017). Whale teeth (or ivory) were also marketable to whalers, but these yielded smaller profits than whale oil. Teeth were regularly carved by whalers in a practice known as scrimshaw, and they often featured intricate designs and nautical themes. Such artefacts are now collectors’ items and museum pieces, providing historians with a glimpse into the whaling industry through the depictions rendered by those who drove it.

A New Zealand example of scrimshaw depicting the whaling ship ‘Pacific’ and compass points, which were formed by intersecting harpoons. The tooth is inscribed with “28th January 1860, Captain Sherburd”. The reverse is inscribed with a poem reading: “Sudden death to our best friends. Success to their killers long life to our Sailors’ wives and greasy luck to the whalers.” This ship was reported in the Otago Daily Times as sinking on the 13th of February 1864 at Patterson’s inlet on Stewart Island in a heavy westerly gale. Image.

Thankfully, since the decline of the whaling industry in the late 19th century and the development of new technologies, most of the applications of whale oil have been replaced with superior products – margarine is now made with vegetable oil and lamps began to be filled with cleaner, less smelly, and cheaper kerosene. It was a relief to many in the 1920s when fashion moved away from women wearing corsets, but those who still want to add a little ‘boning’ support to a frock, now use plastic instead of baleen. The vocal anti-whaling sentiment is strong among New Zealanders today, and since 1978, whales within New Zealand’s 200-nautical-mile (370 km) zone have been protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act. A short time later, in 1986, the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on commercial whaling, which has all but eliminated the use of whale oil today. Cheers Greenpeace!

Chelsea Dickson



Cherrybalmz 2017. Gun lubricant history: Sperm whale oil. [online] available at:

Goodwin, P. 2016. Ezra Kelley Watch Oil [online] Available at:

Huntington, T. 2009. “Treasure Trove of Documents Discovered in Whaling Town,” American Heritage.

McNamara, R. 2017. Whaling industry produced oil, candles, and household tools: whales were the raw materials for many useful objects In the 1800s. [Online] Available at:

Nye 2017. A History of Nye: The Beginning of Cilliam F. Nye Inc. [online] Available at:

Phillips, J. 2006. ‘Whaling – Ship-based whaling’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (Accessed 14 September 2017)

Zabawski. E. 2017. Purposeful porpoise oil. [online] available at: